The ground-beef case is getting more crowded these days, with grocery stores across the country overflowing with plant-based options that are textured, packaged and displayed just like their cow-dependent predecessors. And this isn’t just your hippie aunt’s stuff: High-tech fiddling with veggie-derived colors and fats means these products behave and taste a lot more like beef than the black-bean pucks of yore.
Of course, the Impossible Burger is the Lizzo of the plant-based food market (i.e., so hot right now; also has juice), attracting such celebrity investors as Jay-Z and Serena Williams and earning the Harry Potter-meets-Twilight tagline “the one that bleeds.” After being served up in some of the country’s hottest restaurants (also in Burger King’s Impossible Whopper), the company rolled out its packages in grocery stores late last month, meaning you can get in on the action from the comfort of your own kitchen.
Impossible is joining stock-market darling Beyond Meat in supermarkets — as well as some traditional meat-alternative brands that are getting more serious about their faux-beef game, too. While they might not all be as high-tech as Impossible, most similarly swap vegetable protein for cow and incorporate vegetable oils, juices and flavorings to more closely mimic red-meat properties.
But how close are they to the mark? We gathered some brave eaters for a burger tasting.
One good feature of these products is that you can shape them into patties yourself, whether you prefer steakhouse-like thick slabs or thin, smashable discs. (They also come in preformed patties, too, but I’ve always found those to be disconcertingly factory perfect.) Of course, you can also use them for all the usual-suspect dishes, such as meatballs, sauces and tacos.
But to evaluate them, we kept things simple and stuck to the classic burger for our test, forming each into four-ounce patties with a uniform 3.5-inch diameter and cooking them according to the manufacturer’s directions.
The results were — well, mostly not great, with only one of the options turning out to be something we would feel really confident serving our friends. To be fair, they could be far better if they were gussied up with toppings and condiments (my kingdom for some aioli!), or even a liberal sprinkle of salt, all of which we eschewed to get to the essential burger-ness of each one.
Here’s what we found, starting with our least favorite and progressing to the winner.
4. Lightlife Plant Based Ground
Lightlife is one of the OGs of plant-based protein. Founded in 1979 as Tempeh Works, the company has been making meat substitutes since long before “flexitarian” was just a word to fling around in casual conversations. But Lightlife’s ground product was our least favorite. Its pinky-orange hue was off-putting, bringing to mind a salmon patty for several samplers.
There was disagreement over the texture, with some praising (?) it as “not rubbery,” and others finding it disturbingly bouncy. “Like the inside of a hot dog,” said another, and not in a good way. Nobody liked the taste, though, which reduced us — professional wordsmiths! — to primary-school-speak. A sample? “Yuck.” “Ew.”
3. Sweet Earth Awesome Grounds
The flavor of Sweet Earth’s new ground product was another “nope” for our testers.
Its looks — another salmon-burger doppelganger — weren’t making up for it, either. “This might be in the uncanny gap,” one taster said, referring to the neurological phenomenon we experience when a robot looks almost human. Basically, we’re creeped out.
But one comment suggested there was hope for this robo-burger: “could be okay with condiments.”
2. Beyond Beef
Some of our tasters really dug the crust that the Beyond burger picked up in the pan. But others found the crunchy consistency of its interior… strange. The company reformulated its product last summer, adding bits of coconut oil and cocoa butter that emulate the white fat flecks that give ground beef flavor and juice. “The cross section looks like fossils trapped in rock,” one eater observed, and another was turned off by the “weird textured bits.”
And there was praise for its “nice savory flavor” that one categorized as “a little beefy-tasting even.”
1. Impossible Burger
It turns out, there’s something to the hype: We all agreed that the Impossible Burger was the best of the bunch, and not just in a lesser-of-evils kind of way. “I would serve this to veggie friends,” declared one tester.
Our culinary Sherlocks detected the product’s much-lauded steaklike ooze (it’s actually from beets). “Juicy” was the consensus about the patty, which struck a meatlike pose by having a convincingly slightly pink center and browned exterior.
The seasoning hit the right note, too. While others were bland, one taster enjoyed Impossible’s “discernible salt level.”
In other words, finding a plant-based burger substitute is a task that’s all but Impossible.